Part of the answer to that question hinges on what other teams do, notably the Red Sox, Angels, Indians, White Sox, and Yankees. And, perhaps more so than how well Bradley, Thomas, and Loaiza do, in order for the A's to return to the post-season they need some improvement from Bobby Crosby, Nick Swisher, Dan Johnson, and Eric Chavez. Unless those four upgrade their 2005 performances, given the unreliability of Bradley and Thomas, the A's will again be on the wrong end of enough 3-2 scores to keep them home in October.
On the surface the A's did improve their offense in 2005, scoring 772 runs to rank sixth in the American League, up from ninth in 2004. But were they that much better? They ranked fifth in OBP (.330), but ranked 11th in slugging (.407) and were 10th in OPS (.737). Overall they actually scored 21 fewer runs than they did in 2004. And after all, sixth is still middle-of-the-pack.
Their Pythagorean record was 93-69, which is similarly mis-leading. The A's won 12 games by more than nine runs, the most in the majors. On the other side of the ledger, they lost 12 games when they scored zero runs, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that you can't win if you can't score.
Additionally, they scored one run in 16 games. They scored two runs in 23 games. They scored three runs in 16 games. Add in the number of times they were shut out, and you're left with 67 games when the A's scored three runs or less, tied with the Orioles for the fourth-highest total in the AL, behind the Royals, Twins, and Mariners. According to BP's adjusted runs scored, they scored 37 more runs than they should have. They were, in other words, somewhat lucky offensively.
They were also wildly inconsistent.
Month OPS Runs scored April .657 89 May .672 112 June .820 148 July .809 155 August .744 144 September/October .713 115
Slow starts are nothing new in Oakland, but April and May were dismal even for them, and after 49 games they were every bit as bad as their 17-32 record indicated. But then Crosby, who had been out since Opening Day, returned to the lineup, Chavez and Mark Kotsay began to hit, new-comer Jay Payton did a fair John Mabry impression for a couple of months, Mark Ellis made the conversion from injury-prone mediocre second baseman to an all-star, and presto! The A's turned it around, eventually reaching first place in late August.
But when the calendar flicked to September, the A's wilted, just as they did in 2004. That year it was their starting pitching that sunk them; last year it was their offense. The September collapse in 2005 was "led" by Scott Hatteberg (.194/.279/.269), Payton (.252/.298/.327), Chavez (.229/.278/.448), Swisher (.187/.319/.427), and Johnson (.198/.274/.323).
How to explain the individual numbers? Chavez, who it turns out was hurt last year, is what he is: a very good hitter and a Gold-Glove third baseman—but he's not a great hitter, and he's not somebody who can carry a team like Jason Giambi or Miguel Tejada could.
We can somewhat safely blame the Swisher and Johnson struggles on their youth. They had never played this late into a season, and more than likely they were fatigued. Additionally Swisher spent some time on the bereavement list, but that couldn't have affected him, because it's an intangible, and those don't matter, right?
It is the struggles of Payton and Hatteberg that cut directly to the problems of the A's offense the last three years: insufficient production from the corner outfield spots, first base, and designated hitter.
If the A's were surprised by this, they have only themselves to blame. They did nothing to address these problems, either before the season began or during the season, especially the final month, when Hatteberg and Payton were essentially useless. Yes, they traded for Payton, but if they really expected him to slug .607, as he did in July, then, well, Billy Beane truly is a special kind of genius.
At the start of the year Eric Byrnes was still around in left field, but the A's made no secrets about their desire to trade him, and eventually they did, in early May. Instead of Byrnes as a regular, the A's were anticipating a platoon of Charles Thomas and Bobby Kielty to provide some punch in left field, but that never materalised, as Thomas hit .109/.255/.109 in 46 at-bats that really were as bad as the numbers suggest. He never made it back to the majors. Kielty held up his end, compiling an .867 OPS against south-paws, but he is worthless against right-handed pitchers (.226/.322/.350 in 2005, .212/.322/.322 in 643 at-bats the last three years).
In addition, the A's were banking on Erubiel Durazo sustaining his 2004 level of production, an iffy proposition considering Durazo's age, career norms, and spotty health record. Not surprisingly Durazo got hurt, not before he clubbed the ball to a .237/.305/.368 clip in 152 at-bats in 41 games.
Payton, meanwhile, played over his head in July, when he hit .328/.344/.607. What we saw in August (.261/.284/.486) and September (.252/.327/.352) is more indicative, since Payton has a career hitting line of .282/.330/.443, with an OPS+ of 99.
Remember that mantra about trading/getting rid of a player one year too soon rather than one year too late? You could make a convincing case it applied to Durazo, and you would have a slam-dunk case for Scott Hatteberg. Even if in 2005 he had performed at his 2004 level (.284/.367/.420), he would still have been a below-average hitting first baseman. That he fell off the cliff in 2005 was not surprising, and that's what makes it all the more inexcusable that the A's didn't upgrade the position.
By VORP, the A's best hitter in 2005 was Ellis, at 41.9. Chavez was next, at 35.5, followed by Crosby, at 25.5. When your best hitter is Mark Ellis, that is not good news outside of the Ellis household, and when your third-best hitter played in only 84 games, it's an indication something isn't working.
This brings me to the 2006 A's lineup, which should look something like this:
Mark Ellis, 2B
Mark Kotsay, CF
Bobby Crosby, SS
Eric Chavez, 3B
Milton Bradley, RF
Frank Thomas/Dan Johnson, DH
Nick Swisher/Johnson, 1B/DH
Jay Payton/Bobby Kielty/Swisher, LF
Jason Kendall, C
INF Marco Scutaro
C Adam Melhuse
INF Antonio Perez
INF/OF Freddy Bynum/OF Matt Watson
What wasn't working? As I say above, who the A's had at 1B, LF, RF, and DH. According to BP, the A's in 2005 received a collective VORP of 23.4 from those four slots, which ranked second-to-last in the AL behind the Twins (11.6).
In 2006 the A's are counting on improvement from Swisher and Johnson, and they have replaced the two-headed lefty-mashing platoon of Kielty and Payton with the switch-hitter Bradley. Kielty and Payton are still around, too, as insurance. I know the insurance industry is a mess in the United States, but I didn't realise it carried over to professional baseball. Payton and Kielty are the Medicaid of the outfield world. Payton can play center, which makes him useful, but Kotsay and Bradley can too, minimising that versatility. And at any rate, is Payton worth $4 million for a middle-market team? And just how many more at-bats will it take for the A's to be convinced that Kielty absolutely should not be in the lineup against right-handed pitching? The A's would have been well-served to let Payton go, keep Charles Thomas on the bench as a defensive sub, give Matt Watson Kielty's roster spot, and use Perez as a pseudo-lefy masher. Beane may be smart, but he's human, and that means he can be stubborn. It's obvious he still believes Kielty can produce beyond what he does against lefties, and it's equally obvious that is simply not true.
Bringing in Frank Thomas, however, was a terrific low-cost/high-upside transaction: either he plays and helps your offense, or he doesn't play and doesn't cost you anything. Kudos all around on that one.
Perez, as an ancillary player in a Beane acquisition, is getting his share of pimping from the on-line baseball community. The A's are his fifth organization, and do you know many successful major leaguers to play for three teams, let alone five, before turning 26? (Cue bouncing tumbleweeds.) Right then. In eight minor-league seasons he has a .447 slugging percentage (eh), and a .368 OBP (respectable). In his best year, at AAA in 2004, a 24-year-old Perez hit .296/.387/.511, with 22 HRs, but it was also his sixth minor-league season, and the PCL is friendly to hitters.
After a few brief stints in the majors in 2003 and 2004, last year Perez received significant playing time with the Dodgers. He started out like a Hall-of-Famer, hitting .457 in 35 at-bats in May, tailed off in 91 June at-bats (.275/.333/.352), picked up the pace to hit .353 in 51 July at-bats, before finishing the year 16-73 (.219). His overall hitting line (.297/.360/.398) was heavy on BA, itself mostly driven by his hot start. (He also stole 11 bases with the Dodgers, but there's no way he'll run that much on the A's.) Spotty playing time partly explains the modest numbers—he was never allowed to really settle in to an every-day job—but, as with so many of these kinds of players Beane acquires, the fact is Perez is not that good. He can play anywhere in the infield, and is athletic enough to play the outfield in an emergency, so he will be a valuable bench player. At the very least, he's an upgrade over Marco Scutaro. But if he gets 400 at-bats it will mean that Chavez's shoulder injury is worse than expected, or that somebody else is hurt, and he will not help the team if he's pushed into a regular role.
But undoubtedly the main piece of Beane's off-season pie was Bradley, who, according to the supplicants at BP, "The A's stole from the Dodgers." Admittedly, trading a Grade B prospect like Andre Ethier for a player of Bradley's caliber is, on the surface, a good trade for the A's. But a steal? That's glib.
As much as I'd like to concentrate solely on the numbers, it's impossible to ignore Bradley's intangibles. For my A's column on ESPN.com, I wrote the following. (I have also added a few things for this preview.)
I won't get too philosophical here, but if I've learned one lesson in life it's that people rarely change, even when faced with the most humble problems. Given the unyielding demands of modernity, cutting back on your sugar in-take, exercising more, or vowing to volunteer at the local food bank are difficult enough goals to accomplish. But the problems Bradley has had—most notably an anger problem—are very serious. Particularly disturbing are, according to police reports, the three domestic violence complaints filed during the 2005 season by his then-pregnant wife.
Nobody in Oakland will root for Bradley to fail. Chances are, however, that no matter what the A's do, no matter how hard Bradley himself tries, probably he will do what he has already done with Montreal, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, teams that probably did all they could with Bradley, too. It's not a matter of him being perfect, or nearly perfect, which in any event is impossible. It's a matter of what, and how much, the A's will tolerate, because it's a matter of when, not if, he cracks.
Still, let's wax optimistic for a bit. Assuming some kind of real transformation, or at least a minimum of transgressions, what kind of numbers can we expect? Since becoming a regular in 2002, the most games he has played in a season is 141, in 2004 (and for that he wasn't very good, but more on that later). His next highest is 101, in 2003, and then we go to 98 in 2002, and 75 a year ago. Staying healthy is a skill, and Bradley does not appear to have it. To suggest he's suddenly going to get healthy at this stage of his career is only slightly less realistic than to suggest he's cleaned up his attitude.
But let's assume he does stay healthy for, say, 140 games. Bradley is no longer young; he will be 28 years old in April, and he's logged 1,893 career at-bats. His career line is .269/.350/.426, with a 104 OPS+. His plate discipline has declined in the last three years. In 2003 he drew .142 BB/PA, in 2004 .120, and last year .80. In 2003 he saw 3.96 pitches/PA, in 2004 3.92, and in 2005 3.59. It's possible last year was an anomaly and was related to the larger picture of him being unhappy in Los Angeles. Ignoring for the moment that Bradley has never been happy, if his plate discipline is truly eroding, that is another bad sign.
So what's all the fuss about? In the 98 games he played in 2003 he was very good (.321/.421/.501, 10 HRs, 17 steals), but otherwise he's been on par with Randy Winn (career OPS+ of 103, and a defensive asset like Bradley), and nobody hears about the Giants stealing Randy Winn from the Mariners. And what was Bradley's reward for his solid, albeit limited, performance in 2003? A trade to the Dodgers, who sent Grade B prospect Franklin Gutierrez to the Indians in exchange.
This brings us back to the main point, unfortunately: how difficult Bradley makes it for his teammates and employers. Major-league teams with poor outfield depth, as the Indians had at the time, do not trade switch-hitting, above-average defensive outfielders who compile OPS's of .922 when they're 25 years old. They, and to a lesser extent fans, will tolerate malcontents if they're superstars. There is no better example of this than Barry Bonds. Bradley was good in Cleveland, and perhaps poised to get better, but the Indians, on the cusp of re-building and needing high-end talent, traded him anyway because he wasn't good enough to justify everything else.
What level would be good enough? Someone with Bradley's baggage had better be pounding 30-plus HRs, reaching base at a .380 clip, slugging well over .500, and he had better be healthy. Bradley has never even hit 20 home runs. His highest OBP, .421, is truly outstanding, but of course it came in only 101 games because, as usual, he was hurt. He's had exactly one year with a slugging percentage of .500, and it was exactly one point over, at .501. And the one year he did stay healthy? The 2004 season, when he played 141 games? It wasn't a particularly good one: .269/.362/.424, 19 HRs, 67 RBI.
Before you invoke park effects, recall that he's not coming to a hitter's park now, either. Why should we expect him to perform any better than he did last year for the Dodgers, when he assembled a solid, but for an outfielder not great, hitting line of .290/.350/.484, with 13 HRs? At age 28, a "breakout" is possible, but given all the negatives it's unlikely.
If Bradley was a superstar, if he had the upside to be a superstar, if he could be counted on for 150 games, if he was simply a star like Bernie Williams in his prime, he might be worth the risk. But he is not a superstar, there is no superstar potential, he cannot be counted on to stay healthy, and he will never be a star like Bernie Williams, neither in temperment nor—and this evades most Bradley apologists—in ability.
No matter what the A's new-comers and existing hitters may or may not do, there is one advantage they have that 13 other American League teams lack: they will not have to face the best pitching staff in the majors. They are good enough to begin with, and their defense makes them that much better. And somehow I think this rotation could thrive even with the butchers in Kansas City behind them.
1. Barry Zito
2. Rich Harden
3. Danny Haren
4. Joe Blanton
5. Esteban Loaiza
Some sort of regression is likely for Blanton—at the very least, it's hard to see him getting better in 2006—but that will be amply compensated by a full season from Harden, another step up, perhaps a significant one, from Haren, and the addition of Loaiza. While you can question the wisdom of giving him $21 million over three years, talent-wise there's no question Loaiza is an upgrade over Kirk Saarloos.
And if someone in the rotation should get hurt? The A's have depth, though Saarloos or Joe Kennedy, the next two in the A's Big Nine, would be a drop-off from the front five. Justin Duchscherer, who would make a passable number-three starter on many teams, could start, and succeed, if needed, but he's more valuable in the bullpen. Ex-Jay Chad Gaudin will be in Sacramento, eagerly looking to escape the fetid stench of the California central valley, and as an emergency starter you can do worse. Speaking of which, Juan Cruz is still here (for now), and he too could be summoned from Sac-town to help in a pinch. But if he sees extended time in the rotation, the team he'd really help would be the Angels.
Led by Huston Street, Duchscherer, and Kiko Calero, the bullpen is just as good as the rotation—and just as deep. There's no Octavio Dotel this year, nor Cruz, nor erstwhile LOOGY Ricardo Rincon, but those are good things: Dotel hung way too many sliders in his brief A's tenure, Cruz allowed 38 hits and 22 walks in 32 innings, and Rincon walked 20 hitters in his 37 innings. Jay Witasick has been up and down in his career, but he'll suffice as a middle-innings eater—not that the A's need one of those, of course, given the strength of their rotation. Kennedy and Saarloos round out a top-notch, versatile bullpen.
The A's won 88 games last year on the strength of outstanding pitching and defense, and on the basis of an offense that got hot for about two months in the middle of the season before finishing the way it started—that is to say, terribly. It will be their offense that dictates how far they go this year; even their pitching isn't good enough to win 2-1 every day. The good news is that, on paper, the A's offense should be better, and more consistent, in 2006.
But there are legitimate reasons to be concerned. Their best player from a year ago, Ellis, will not duplicate his success (.316/.384/.477). It's hard to understate how important he was to the A's last year, but in 2006 he'll regress to a still useful .280/.340/.420. And relying on a player who is as reliably un-reliable as Bradley is not a good idea, and his loss for an extended period of time would mean too much Kielty and Payton. The same holds true if/when Thomas is out.
So we're thrown back to the four players I mentioned at the out-set: Swisher, Johnson, Crosby, and Chavez.
While it's likely he'll get better, Swisher may not get significantly better until 2007—PECOTA has him down for a season similar to the one he had in 2005: .252/.347/.455.
Johnson, who is 26, may already be as good as he'll ever be, though having him for a full year will no doubt help. PECOTA sees him having very similar peripherals as he did a year ago: .272/.353/.462.
PECOTA seems down on Crosby, expecting the shortstop to hit .269/.346/.453—all numbers lower than what Crosby did a year ago. But if there's a player out of the Johnson/Swisher/Crosby trio to turn into an all-star this season, it's Crosby.
There is, however, the matter of his propensity to get hurt, and we should not discount it. Will Carroll, in his team health report for the A's, wrote, "[Crosby] hasn’t proven he can get through a season healthy yet and health is a skill. The shoulder injury isn’t serious, but it’s symptomatic of what holds Crosby back." (Crosby stayed healthy his rookie year, playing in 151 games, but I'll forgive Carroll for forgetting.)
Curiously, what Carroll said runs contrary to what BP said about Crosby in their book.
"Both of last year’s injuries were random—he broke a rib on a spring training HBP, and an ankle when he ran into Sal Fasano—so you can’t . . . criticize his durability."
So is he an injury risk or just unlucky? Compare the comments on Crosby to what BP says about one of his peers, San Diego's Khalil Greene.
"The plate discipline is worrisome, the injury record even more so. In less than a year, Greene has twice broken a finger and once a toe, all on routine plays. Greene doesn’t have a history of injuries, but it’s possible that he is overextended playing shortstop at the major-league level."
Part of the problem with Baseball Prospectus is their undeniable bias toward all things Athletics. Is it not possible to be "unlucky" on a routine play? If Greene was on the A’s his injuries would be dismissed because they were on routine plays, which everyone is subject to. Probably they would present evidence indicating that, out of 1,000 routine plays, 15 of them are subject to an injury, and Greene, pity the fella, got three of them in one year. But because he’s not on the A's his injury record is "worrisome." Crosby’s injury record, meanwhile, is unimpeachable; it is a product of random events.
As with everything, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle: Crosby has been somewhat unlucky, and he may be more likely to get hurt than the "average" player. Overall I’m with Carroll more than I’m with BP’s book: staying healthy is a skill, and last year Crosby wasn't very good at it.
Then there is the A's only legitimate slugger, Chavez, who also happens to be the best third baseman in the league—defensively, that is. I disagree with BP's assessment that Chavez is "one of the 10 or 15 best players in the league." He certainly wasn't last year, when he hit .269/.329/.466, though no doubt that was due in part to the injury on his right shoulder—an injury that has not healed for the 2006 season.
Nonetheless, that doesn't account for how Chavez's walk rate was cut in half, from .165 BB/PA in 2004 to .84 a year ago. If anything, he should have walked more in 2005, since it may have hurt him slightly to swing. But what do I know? Well, this. He'll perform at his 2005 level at minimum, but we should put aside forever the thought he'll "bust out" and be that .300/.400/.580/40 HR guy.
Overall I think the A's are going to be a terrific team, though I am less optimistic than most of the on-line/stat-head community, who are fawning over them as usual. Our own Leigh Sprague called them the best team in baseball. One of the best? Possibly. But the best? Not likely. There are five teams in the American League who could easily be better than the A's in 2006: New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. That's no knock on Oakland, but rather an indication of how good the American League is right now. All the teams above have their weaknesses, and the A's are no different. Their pitching is world class, and their defense is terrific, but their offense has too many question marks and not enough depth, even allowing for a trade at the break for a mid-season fix.
Still, Bradley and Thomas, together, will form one very good player for about 150 games or so, and, assuming most everything else goes reasonably as expected, the A's should win five more games in 2006. So put me down for 93 wins, but whether that's good enough to make the playoffs is another matter.